Stage Door Review

acts of faith

Saturday, November 28, 2020

✭✭

by David Yee, directed by Nina Lee Aquino

Factory Theatre, Toronto

November 19-29, 2020

“For nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest; neither any thing hid, that shall not be known and come abroad” (Luke 8:17)

During the current pandemic I have avoided reviewing prerecorded plays and operas since to my mind they do not constitute live theatre. Even in livestreamed events or events broadcast live, the very act of filming a theatrical performance mediates the experience and we experience the mediated event not the event itself. (I wrote a long article on the subject for Opera Canada in 2014.) Nevertheless, I was intrigued when Factory Theatre announced that award-winning playwright David Yee had written a play specifically intended to be livestreamed. In this case, the medium of transmission would, one hoped, be integral to the experience.

As it happened, Yee’s acts of faith (no caps] turned out not to be fully successful as a livestreamed event, much less as a substitute for live theatre as had been touted. Even Yee’s play simply as a text lacked answers to several key questions one asks of any play and moves toward a confrontation whose contrivance undermines its effectiveness.

The majority of Yee’s play is set in Kitwe, Zambia, which is birthplace of the show’s sole actor, Natasha Mumba. (Neither the Assistant Director’s notes nor Yee’s Playwright’s Notes in the programme say how much Mumba’s own experiences informed the story.) The play focusses on the character Faith (symbolic name alert) whom her mother regards as a “miracle baby” since she was born after the mother was told she could have no more children.

Faith grows up in a devoutly Roman Catholic environment. As a teenager she begins to see how she can use various tricks to convince her school-friends that she has divine powers such has “healing” one friend who has contracted a rash.

On a trip to Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, Faith is excited to see the country’s largest Catholic cathedral and episcopal see. There Faith becomes as enamoured as is everyone else with the handsome English priest employed there. She is excited when she finds he will take her confession but shocked when he makes  inappropriate advances towards her. She discovers that the priest has a long history of being transferred from one diocese to another and despairs when she finds that after Lusaka he has been transferred to Kitwe.

In the play’s most gripping scene, Faith recounts how she found a spectacular way of distracting attention away from the priest and simultaneously raising herself to near-adulation among the townspeople. Faith’s belief is guided by Jesus’s “Lesson of the Lamp” in Luke 8:17 that “nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest”, i.e. that the priest’s secret will eventually become known.

While the first part of the play moves at a steady but leisurely pace, the second part seems rushed. The first half had time to detail Faith’s interaction with her friends. The second crams together major events demanding fuller explanation such as Faith’s crisis of belief, Faith’s moving to Mississauga and Faith’s subsequent encounters in Canada that are far too coincidental. Maybe Yee felt the play needed a dose of Cancon, but it would have been more believable if the action had remained in Africa.

The primary difficulty with the play, however, is that Yee has not made clear why, where or to whom Faith is now telling her story. Joanna Yu’s set depicts a single bed in a spartan narrow dormer room with a cross hanging over the bed. This looks much more like an institutional room than it does a young woman’s personal bedroom, but where Faith actually is when she speaks, including whether in Canada or Zambia, is never made clear.

Yee’s notion of writing a play intended for livestreaming would seem to be supported by Faith’s speaking directly to the camera in her laptop. Twice director Nina Lee Aquino has Faith make a show of picking up the laptop and taking it to her bed with all the associated visual disruption. Yet, the concept that what we see is Faith recording her story on her computer as seen from the computer’s point of view is undermined by at least two shots taken at an angle to Faith that show her from the side speaking to the laptop. These side-shots completely ruin what one supposes was the livestreaming premise.

The most important question Yee leaves unanswered is why Faith is recording her story now of all times. What has motivated her need to unburden herself and who exactly does she think will ever hear this recording? It is simply for herself? Has she become so infamous the story is meant for posterity? The situation is totally unclear. We even have to wonder whether, given Faith’s past history of deceit, if the story is entirely fabricated. But if it is, the question again is why?

Besides this, Yee’s forced surprise ending seems to have waylaid him from exploring the ideas that the play had posited earlier. Faith’s summary of the action concern only the final events of the action, while the first part of the play appeared to be heading toward a more substantial investigation of the nature of belief. Yee seemed to be asking whether belief triggered by trickery is still valid as belief. By the end Yee has dropped the topic.

Despite all that doubts that hang over the show, Natasha Mumba gives an absolutely riveting performance, so intense, in fact, that the questions surrounding the set-up of the situation only begins to nag once her performance is over. Yee has created a great role for Mumba in that she is required to play at least nine characters, each of which she keeps skillfully differentiated from the others. The two most extreme examples are Mumba’s warmly comic portrayal of Faith’s convention-conscious mother and the iciness of the smooth-talking English priest. Mumba’s Faith develops spellbindingly through a great emotional arc in only 75 minutes – from a mischievous, know-it-all schoolgirl to a young woman coping with a loss of faith to an avenging angel.

This is Factory Theatre’s first-ever livestreamed show so we should not expect it to be as slick, say, as a Live from the Met broadcast, but it really does have too many glitches for such a short running time to be truly enjoyable. I saw the show on the media preview night at an internet speed far above what should be necessary for steaming videos. Despite this, individual words frequently dropped out and the screen froze completely six times. When I reconnected the show had progressed. Perhaps, in these gaps there were explanations to the answers I have said Yee left unexplained, but I must say that that did not appear to be the case. Other filming aspects of the show seemed underrehearsed like the bumpy (and unnecessary) zoom-in of Faith on her bed.

For a play supposedly meant to be livestreamed, Yee has made some odd miscalculations. The most salient is having Faith open each section of her story with a religion-based joke. Jokes require an audience to be effective. In the theatre Mumba as Faith would be able to interact with the audience’s laughter or groans. Livestreamed, Faith’s jokes are simply sent out DOA into the ether.

In any event acts of faith is a noble effort and is a play that Ye could easily fill out to 90 minutes to provide a better portrait of his subject. The show demonstrated that even livestreaming is not an adequate substitute for live theatre because the cameras mediate between the actor and our perception of her. Mumba’s performance may be live but we have no sense of a communal experience. In the end, acts of faith did not palliate my pain at the loss of live theatre as much as demonstrate exactly why that pain is so acute.

For tickets, visit www.factorytheatre.ca.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Natasha Mumba in acts of faith© 2020 Dahlia Katz.